Monday 7 June 2010

Pragmatism and Principle

The reason why Gladstone and Disraeli took such opposite views over the Turkish massacres in Bulgaria in 1876 comes down to one simple thing: the 'ethics of opposition' versus the 'pragmatism of power.' William Ewart Gladstone famously called for the Turks to be removed 'bag and baggage' from the areas they had devastated in the Batak outrages; Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister of the day, held steady to the established British position in maintaining the Ottoman Empire as a counter to the expansionist ambitions of Russia.

Would Gladstone in office, it is fair to ask, have behaved any differently? Yes, I think he may very well have, and not purely for reasons of moral outrage. There was simply no reason to suppose, as Disraeli did, that an independent Bulgaria would have been little more than a Russian puppet. In fact, there was a pragmatic dimension to Gladstone's whole perception of the issue, and it is this: a line of vigorous independent Balkan nations would, in the long run, have served the British purpose far better than a weak and weakening Turkish Empire.

Not many years after the Treaty of Berlin had greatly reduced the Bulgarian borders previously established at San Stephano the country was behaving in a determinedly independent manner, much to the frustration of the Russians. Indeed, when Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia joined to together in 1885, in defiance of the Treaty of Berlin, the move was opposed by Russia, though it was supported by Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, who had been Disraeli's Foreign Secretary at Berlin. Thus the diplomatic world was turned upside down. So, in the end, even the Tories recognised that the Grand Old Man had not been entirely wrong!


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  2. I do agree that politicians should be pragmatic but not to the point where they are blind to the wider implications of a possible course of action. The British spent the best part of a century trying to prop up a decrepit empire which still crumbled away, no matter what, and in the end turned out to be an enemy anyway. A strong Balkan League would have been a far better position upon which to base pragmatism.

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